Strange though it may seem to say about a Ben Stiller comedy, there were many good reasons to have high hopes for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which the movie star/comic veteran starred in and directed. Its beautiful trailer was, for me, the first reason. It was one of those dialogue-less teaser pieces that got across the simple setup of the film in a nutshell using nothing but a cascade of its best footage. The second reason was the movie’s potentially heartfelt theme of finding your rhythm in life. Another giant goofball movie star, Adam Sandler, once starred in Punch-Drunk Love, a film with exactly that theme and a strikingly similar set up to Walter Mitty; it still stands as the best thing Sandler has ever been in. The third reason is that Stiller has publicly stated his desire — if not his intention — to stop starring in other director’s (generally terrible) comedies and focus all of his creative energy on making his own films. It seemed that for a man as successful as him (he currently has three franchises going, all of which feature him as the number one star) to renounce stardom might indicate some Joaquin Phoenix-style mid-career recommitment to producing quality movies. Though it’s been languishing in development for years, Mitty has been a labor of love for Stiller since he took it over; a 2012 New Yorker profile outlined his long struggle to get funding for this passion project. Back before I knew better, this all seemed to point towards Mitty just maybe turning out to be Stiller’s masterpiece.
This is one let down I should have seen coming. Stiller has been, and here remains, a Hollywood man through and through, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it does mean that he has dangerously few qualms with dumbing down his output. It seems that to get this movie made on the budget he needed, what with the nonstop special effects sequences and all, Stiller had to make every concession imaginable to big studio-style filmmaking.
Mitty is ostensibly the story of a mid-level office worker’s journey to find his inner courage, to break out of a self-imposed prison of ordinariness and live out the life of adventure he’s always dreamed of. In the opening scenes, Stiller does a surprisingly effective job of setting up that ordinariness. He establishes Walter as a gentle, hard-working caretaker of other people with only his actor’s talent for conveying sincerity and a series of simple, well-framed shots: Walter solemnly balancing his checkbook, longing for the new girl (Kristen Wiig) at work and kissing his mother goodbye after a too-brief visit all register as genuine moments, and the cumulative effect is to promise the audience a genuine movie. Then the plot rockets into action, and without warning or the sense that anything has been earned, Walter is offered the adventures he’s always wanted: Stiller the director sends Stiller the actor off to set piece after set piece, each less believable and more damaging to the movie than the last. The early, character-based momentum is lost so totally that by the halfway point Stiller’s film unmistakably resemble a series of TV commercials for products like Viagra or Kodak film: all pretty shots of mountains and beaches with lots of lens flare, all set to pop music that’s meant to be inspiring but comes off as pandering. It winds up having exactly the level of emotion of a commercial: you get the impression that someone wants you to feel good about yourself so that you’ll buy something, only in Walter Mitty’s case, what you’re being asked to buy, if you can stomach it, is Ben Stiller as an artist.
On the plus side, Stiller does have a good eye, even if it doesn’t add up to anything. Taken in and of themselves, the adventure sequences, when Walter travels the world for various ill-conceived reasons, and even a few of the later character-to-character scenes, are well constructed. Stiller is a director who knows how to put together a series of shots: he never frames a bit of physical comedy too tightly, and he knows how to cut to a reaction shot (say, of Wiig’s face) at just the right second to land the punchline of a joke. He clearly has directing talent, which is all the more of a let down, because this film oozes the feeling that a vision has been sold out. And, as if the general air of a TV commercial weren’t enough, Stiller uses increasingly overt product placements (want to feel a mysterious urge for Papa John’s or Cinnabon? This is the movie for you) to both move along the hackneyed plot and, presumably, to pay for his special effects.
It’s a sad state of affairs when someone as successful as Ben Stiller can profess his desire to make personal movies just as he turns in something as shiny and shallow as this. The most interesting question this film brings up is: was Stiller’s creative vision somehow stymied, or is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty something he watches with a genuine sense of satisfaction? Is he far gone enough to think that this incoherent sack of schmaltz really is the best he could do?